Listening for the Voice of God
How does God speak into our lives? Through dramatic, life-altering events? Through a powerful experience or divine vision that leaves us with no doubt God is speaking to us? Sure, at times, it does happen this way, and those moments can be some of the most memorable and sacred moments of our lives. I hope we can all experience a “Damascus Road” moment in our lives when God makes himself known to us in an undeniable way through Jesus Christ. But as I’ve been learning the past year, God speaks into our lives in many other ways as well; in more subtle and less dramatic, yet no less miraculous, ways. If we can only tone down the static around us, and increasingly tune ourselves into the presence of God, we will surely be transformed by His voice. Our hearts will be changed as we receive the love and grace of God through our faith in Christ. In turn, our lives will begin to mirror that love and grace as a response of gratitude and thankfulness. A little over a year ago, God began to speak into my heart and life in several unexpected ways. He began to show me His heart for the poor and needy, calling me to follow His lead of compassion and justice. But as I am also learning, being transformed by the voice of God is an ongoing process, one that will only be complete on the day I go to be with Him.
Last year, for reasons unknown to me at the time, I became interested in the country of Haiti. In college, I had a roommate whose family was originally from Haiti. I remember him talking about how good Haitian food was, but otherwise, I couldn’t tell you where Haiti was on a map, much less that it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. After leaving college, I stayed in touch with my friend, but Haiti was far from my mind and my life. But little by little in the months that followed, God began to bring Haiti to the forefront of my mind. I started to read stories, articles and books about the poverty in Haiti. The more I found out and researched, the more I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Weeks went by, and Haiti was heavy on my heart. Over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife Kelli and I traveled from Chicago to Michigan to spend some time with family. We attended Kelli’s parent’s church on Sunday, and as I walked in and picked up the bulletin, I had a hard time believing what I saw. That day’s service was focused on how the church was forming a close relationship with the country of Haiti, by working with and supporting several Haitian ministry organizations and sending groups on mission trips. If I had any hesitation believing that God was speaking into my life about poverty and Haiti, there was little doubt left at this point.
Through this process, God opened the doors for me to spend 10 days in Haiti on a life-changing mission trip with the church. Seeing and experiencing the kind of poverty you usually only read about, and seeing the faith of the Christians in Haiti despite their circumstances, stirred something in my heart. After my trip, I knew God was calling me to take action in response to what I saw and learned. I now had a responsibility to take everything I experienced and respond in a way to bring about good in the lives of others in need. As a result of much prayer and listening, I have been able to respond by organizing an annual golf fundraiser to benefit the Haitian-based ministry, GLOW Ministries International (glowmi.org). God led me to take something I already loved to do (golf), and turn it into an event to bring others together to raise awareness and money for the impoverished people of Haiti.
Through this process, I was forced to wrestle with some difficult questions in my life which moved me to take action. I began to ask myself if I was living for myself or for others; if my life was full of greed or generosity; and whether entitlement or gratitude was the driving force behind my actions. I began to ask myself what Biblical justice would mean, not only for the people of Haiti, but for people in poverty all over the world. Perhaps the most important, yet perplexing question I began to wrestle with was what I can do to fight for that justice. As I honestly examined my life, I knew God was speaking, calling me to change.
In order to take effect in my life, the change God was calling me to needed to start in my heart. This, I now know, is also not just a dramatic one-time experience, but an ongoing everyday process. One major step to the change was a new and fresh way of viewing the world. After seeing the conditions that many Haitians live in and the lack of food, resources, and medicine, the American culture of excess and greed that we live in became much more apparent. An experience like Haiti has changed my thought process when observing how much money and time are wasted on frivolous and unnecessary things in America. Another step in this change was the desire to share what I was learning with everyone in my life. When we become passionate about something, we often want to share what’s in our hearts with others. But in doing so, it is often easy to become discouraged. The problem comes when others don’t share our passion and don’t react to what we share in the ways we hope them to. In many cases, the cause we fight for begins to feel hopeless in the face of other’s apathy. But the beauty of the Gospel message is that it is always bursting with hope, regardless of circumstances. If God is at the core of the change we are trying to bring about, we should never lose hope. We can be encouraged by the fact that it’s never too late for God to bring about change in even the hardest of hearts. We also should keep in mind that our passion can be contagious. As people see our hearts for poverty, social justice, or whatever it is we are passionate about, over time God may begin to work in their hearts through us.
As I have found out, following the call of Jesus to love others above myself involves asking some difficult questions. More importantly, it also involves a willingness to sacrifice my own middle-class comforts. In America, I believe our need to be comfortable is one of the biggest factors holding us back from following the call of Jesus with abandon. The strength to step out of our comfort zones comes only from God as we grow closer to Him, trusting in who He is. I truly believe that if we are willing to sacrifice our comfort for the sake of others, God gladly blesses our efforts. If we can become generous with our time, money and resources, God will find ways to bring blessings, whether practical or spiritual, into our lives.
Its one thing to talk about sacrifice, compassion and generosity, but it’s a whole different thing to put them into practice. Sometimes, taking a spiritual truth we have learned, and moving it from our head to our heart is the most difficult step in our transformation. As my involvement with Haiti progressed, God brought another opportunity for practical application of compassion and sacrifice into my life. As He did so, however, my persistent old selfishness seemed to surface.
A new ministry had developed at my church called Safe Families. In this ministry, people volunteer to take children into their homes for a period of time, basically as a form of temporary foster care. Most children in the program were from parents who were in a crisis or were temporarily unable or unfit to take care of them, and had no support system to help them. The program was, in many cases, the last hope for parents who were in danger of losing custody of their children. This program gave them a chance to retain custody while pulling their lives together, knowing their children were in a loving and safe home. I thought the program was great; I just didn’t think it was for me. I like kids and all; I just was uncomfortable with having one I had never met in my home, at all times. I felt the amount of time and sacrifice this would require, including meeting with the parents once a week, and in addition to our involvement with Haiti and other ministries, was just too much. This surely wouldn’t leave enough “me” time, I thought. However, as my wife Kelli learned about this ministry, she became very interested in serving in this way. And as God often seems to do, He presented an opportunity for us to be a part of this ministry, and left the decision up to us. Not wanting to say no to God (or my wife), we ended up joining the Safe Families program and taking in a 2 year old girl for a few months. The family was in danger of losing her to a foster home and needed to get their lives in order, attending classes and rehabilitation in order to retain custody. In spite of my initial feelings of inadequacy as a “parent” and my selfish worries, it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. I learned a great deal about parenting and the sacrifice it entails, and in the process, I also grew and matured in my faith. Looking back now, as we continue to be involved in this ministry, I can see that God not only wanted to bless the family’s life through Kelli and I, but that He also wants to bless us in ways we never imagined.
Through these experiences in the last year, I have learned how to better listen for the voice of God in my life. I still, however, continue to struggle with how best to respond to His voice as He calls me to live a compassionate, loving and just life. But as I open my life and heart to the love of Christ, I am learning how much this life is not about me. I don’t need to force myself to do things I think are pleasing to God. I don’t need to strive to earn God’s love, trying to make things happen for His Kingdom. Trying to do things on my own only fights against what God wants to do in and through me. Instead, I need to grow in knowledge of the grace and love of God. As I do so, I become empowered to dispense that grace and love to others. When I surrender my life to God every day, He delights in bringing opportunities into my life to care for and bless others. The more I come to know Jesus, who lived for the cause of others, the more I’m moved to act in the best interest of others.
How is God speaking into your life? What is He laying on your heart? Is there extra noise and clatter in your life distracting you from hearing His voice? If there is a person, a ministry, or an action that unexpectedly comes into your life, or repeatedly into your thoughts, I would encourage you to take it seriously, to take time to pray about what action you should take, and to respond in love. I once heard an African pastor explain our salvation in this way: “salvation is the receiving, responding to and giving of the love that is ours in Christ”. I would argue that living “the just life” starts when we truly receive God’s love. I used to feel not good enough to receive God’s love, that I was inadequate to accept His grace into my life. Over the course of the past few years, God has shown me that feeling inadequate and insufficient are the main criteria for receiving His grace and undeserved love. Peace and joy have washed over me as I come to the beautiful realization that I can’t earn anything from God, and more importantly, that I don’t have to. He freely gives these gifts to us, because He is Love. We are all qualified by our brokenness as undeserving recipients of His love, grace and salvation. When we put our trust in Him, we take hold of our salvation through His unfailing love. Once we allow that love to penetrate our hearts, we are then made free to respond and give that love to others out of gratitude.
In my case, God was calling me to be more compassionate and sacrificial, to care for the poor, and to be more generous with my time and money. He continues showing me His heart and encouraging me to share His heart for the poor. I know none of these things are possible without His grace and love, that I can do nothing apart from Him. I pray that I can respond to His call more than ever this next year as I attempt to replace my selfishness with sacrificial love, to replace my greed with gratitude and generosity. What is God calling you to? Is there a mentoring program in your community where you could make a difference in a child’s life? Is there a homeless shelter or food pantry where you could bring some love into the lives of needy people? Do you have the resources or the opportunity to travel to a third world country to encourage and serve those in need? How can you use your God-given gifts? You may be surprised by what God wants to do in your heart and in the lives of others through you.
As we take the first step of humility, choosing to serve others above ourselves, I believe God will open doors to use our talents and gifts to find creative ways to serve those in need. God will work through us to accomplish things beyond what we alone are capable of. He will also take joy in pouring blessings into our lives as we live for the cause of others. And as we are empowered by God to serve others, I believe we are called to empower those in need. More than just giving charity, investing time and energy in someone’s life helps empower that person to realize their God-given potential. The ripple effect from this can be ongoing, as the empowered person is then made free to positively influence their family and friends, the family and friends free to empower the community, and so on. Empowerment can establish a beautiful cycle of hope, as more and more people are enabled to become the people God designed them to be.
This brings us back to the question I started with: How does God speak into our lives? As I am finding out, He does so in beautiful and unexpected ways. We just need to allow enough quiet and have enough attentiveness in our lives to notice. As we seek the best ways to bring love and justice to those in need, God will empower us to serve as His compassionate hands in our world. Our responsibility is to open our hearts to His voice and let Him speak into our lives with power, which moves us to take action. And as we continue the struggle against our own selfishness and need for comfort, I pray that God continues to speak to us, teaching us how to live, and showing us more of His heart.
Brian Booth lives just northwest of Chicago with his wife Kelli. He currently works as the Community Relations Coordinator at a Chicago area non-profit organization, which serves people with disabilities. Through writing, involvement with outreach ministries at his church, Harvest Bible Chapel, and his connection with GLOW Ministries International, Brian continues to seek and share God’s heart for those in need. He dreams of starting his own non-profit organization which mentors and empowers at-risk youth to build a brighter future. You can read his personal blog at brian-booth.blogspot.com.